Friday, January 19, 2018

Peridot Is a Girl's Best Friend

Sometimes in life, you meet the coolest people and make the craziest connections and it's as though they were just meant to be a part of your story from that day forward.

(I will acknowledge that this happens a lot in the two places I tend to spend the bulk of my time: New York City, as you might expect, given the sheer number of lonelys and loonys; and Moshi, Tanzania, a town about the size of my graduating college class.

So, while I might be slightly better poised than most for meet-cutes, platonic and otherwise, I really do think it's true that if you open your heart - and your mouth - and get to know new people, you find out, a lot of them are just like you and pretty damn interesting to boot!) 

That said, this past summer while still in Moshi, my friend Deus (a Tanzanian national living in California with his American wife, also a good friend of mine) returned to Tanzania with a group of folks intent on "climbing Kili for a cause."  This cause was Parkinson's disease as Deus's mother-in-law suffers from the illness and the people he brought over have all been touched in some way or form by the disease.  For a refresher on how their trek and trip went down, check out this blog entry:

Now, back in NYC, while finishing up my fundraising marathon and miles away from Kilimanjaro, I was recently reunited with a bunch of these Team Foxers for dinner in early December and then again last week when my mom and I trained out to Larchmont, NY with former Toa intern Kaitlin to do a little "shopping for a cause." 

Meet Dawn and her husband, Chuck.

They are pretty awesome. 

After taking them to Msaranga and spending time with them in Moshi town in August, it was my pleasure to reunite and catch up.  Well, not just catch up but get to know each other even better.

Turns out when Dawn isn't climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, she is curating her gorgeous shop, Peridot Fine Jewelry (named after the bright green semi-precious stone), just outside NY city.  After visiting one of the Toa school sites on her recent trip to TZ, she was inspired to share what she learned with her client community.  So, in lieu of sending the usual teas or chocolates for her top clients as a holiday gift, she chose to make a contribution in their name to Toa, and designed a holiday card around the donation.

The card, below, went out around the holidays and I just love the way Dawn "winterized" our Toa colors for the holiday theme.  I also love the word-of-mouth publicity that she has engendered for Toa and hope I can do the same for Peridot!

Of course, while we were there, we also had to check out the goods, so Carla, Kaitlin, and I shopped for several hours before finally settling on our purchases and going for lunch.  The great thing about Peridot is that while of course there are some amaaaazing pieces (with likewise amaaaazing pricetags), there is also some really cool funky stuff like the "ear hugger" earrings that Carla gifted me with and the raw quartz pendant that she bought for herself.  Kaitlin, unusually frugal, didn't buy anything, but she did put her mom's name on the mailing list.  ;)  I guarantee Sally will be coming by for some retail therapy shortly.... 

Check out Dawn's catalog and my new earrings (the bottom set), and for more information, visit the Peridot website here:

Also, be sure to see the "Brave" collection which all the Team Foxers now wear.  The silver lettering on these cord bracelets spell "brave" in Khmer, and I'm pretty sure wearing one guarantees a successful Kili climb! 

And, do check out the Michael J. Fox Foundation dedicated to furthering Parkinson's research at and Deus Haraja's tour company, Beyond Adventures, which is organizing further treks for Parkinson's but can also create safari, beach, or mountain packages tailored to your individual needs,

Remember, BE OPEN-MINDED!  Climb mountains!  Shop for jewelry!  You never know when you'll meet your next new friend!!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Run Amok

As a coda to my last post regarding President Magufuli's stance on pregnant schoolgirls, please have a look at this article from the Capital News in Kenya, dated January 5th, and written by Jeremiah Wakaya.  (Photo credit CFM News).


Tanzania opposition lawmaker, Tundu Lissu, has left the Nairobi hospital where he was admitted after being shot in September last year in Dodoma, TZ 

Lissu, who represents Singida constituency, told a news conference at the hospital on Friday that those who attacked him used sophisticated military weapons, an indication according to him that President John Magufuli's government was involved.

He revealed that eight bullets have so far been removed from his body but one remained lodged since removing it would be life-threatening.

Lissu is set to fly abroad on Saturday for specialized care to help him regain his ability to walk.

The official opposition Chief Whip said the shooting was an assassination attempt by what he described as the cruel regime of Magufuli.

"I was shot 16 times for denouncing President Magufuli who, since coming into office, has turned the country, literally, into a police state," Lissu stated.

"Newspapers are closed for criticizing the government, radio stations are shut down, journalists are arrested and beaten.  Even posting critical messages on social media has become a criminal offense," said the Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA) party MP.

Lissu who is confined to a wheelchair was shot in the stomach and the leg.

According to CHADEMA, Lissu had previously complained of being 'tailed' by a car and repeatedly said he feared for his life.

Lissu has had a series of run-ins with Magufuli's government and has been arrested at least six times last year, accused of insulting the president and disturbing public order, among other charges.

"Since the attempted assassination, President Magufuli has not made a single public statement denouncing an attempt on my life a leading figure of the opposition," Lissu noted.

The President of Tanzania's bar association, the Tanganyika Law Society, as well as being CHADEMA's Attorney General, Lissu has on several occasions asked government officials pressing questions in parliament, something that rattled the state.

His most recent arrest was in August, after revealing that a plane bought for the national carrier had been impounded in Canada over unpaid government debts.

Lissu accused President Magufuli of leading a campaign against the publicization of his attack even as the parliament remained non-committal on the payment of his medical bill which is an entitlement as per the Tanzanian law.

"We've been taking care of sick parliamentarians over the years.  Since I was admitted here, not a single penny has been paid on my bill or upkeep," he said accompanied by his party chairperson, Freeman Mbowe, and his two sons – Agostino and Edward.

CHADEMA has, since Lissu's shooting, tirelessly demanded a probe to unmask the perpetrators of the crime which the party described as shocking.

"CHADEMA has received with great shock the report on the shooting of the party chief legal counsel who is also opposition Chief Whip in parliament and Singida East MP, Tundu Antipus Lissu," a statement released by the party following his attack on September 7th read.

Magufuli's excesses have been a concern since he ascended to power in 2015.

On March 23rd for instance, Magufuli fired his information minister – Mtama MP Nape Nnauye – after he ordered a probe into an incident where Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda stormed into the offices of the Clouds FM Media Group with six armed men.

Makonda had demanded the airing of a controversial video aimed at undermining a popular local preacher with whom he had a dispute.

"We are used to seeing such incidents during coups d'etat, when armed men enter studios to proclaim they are overthrowing the state," Nnauye said condemning the occurrence.

"I will advise my bosses to take punitive measures against the regional commissioner," he lamented.

While dismissing Nnauye, Magufuli said he will not let anyone teach him how to do his job.

Nicknamed "tinga tinga" (bulldozer) like his Kenyan ally, National Super Alliance leader Raila Odinga, Magufuli even confiscated passports of Indian construction workers last year for allegedly sleeping on the job.

The Amnesty International Report 2016/2017 highlighted cases where over a dozen women were assaulted by the authorities with at least 200 people injured after the government placed a ban on all political meetings in June last year until 2020.

In August last year, over 20 suspected gays and lesbians were arrested with community-based HIV/AIDS prevention programs for gay men being stopped in November according to Amnesty.

Magufuli also announced that all girls who get impregnated while in school will be forced out amid public outcry.

Asked whether he would support such a policy, Lissu said denying girls education on account of being impregnated was an abuse the right to education.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"The Bulldozer" Goes Off-Road

Be prepared to get mad.  Like, really, really, really, REALLY mad.

The article reprinted below is from The Guardian, written by Karen McVeigh, and originally published on December 13th, 2017.  The photo credit belongs to STR/AFP/Getty Images.


Tanzania pardons two child rapists and calls for arrest of pregnant schoolgirls

Activists accuse government of encouraging human rights violations, as President Magufuli releases convicted abusers of 10 primary school children

Activists accused Tanzania's leaders of "promoting a culture of human rights violations," as the release of two high-profile child rapists this week coincided with calls for pregnant schoolgirls to be arrested.

John Magufuli, the Tanzanian president, pardoned the two men, who were convicted of the rape of 10 primary school children aged between six and eight, along with thousands of other prisoners, in his independence day speech on Saturday.

News of their release emerged as a government official in the east African country called for pregnant pupils to be taken into custody.  On Monday, John Mongella, the regional commissioner of Mwanza, said the move would force girls to testify against those who impregnated them.  This followed calls from the president earlier this year to ban pregnant girls from school.

The released rapists are singer Nguzu Viking, known as Babu Seya, and his son, Johnson Ngazu, known as Papii Kocha, who were pardoned by the president after serving 13 years of their sentence.  They had been convicted in 2003 of raping the children, pupils at Mashujaa primary school in the Kinondoni district of Dar es Salaam.

Fazia Mohamed, the director of Equality Now's Africa office, said: "While President Magufuli is pardoning convicted child rapists, regional commissioner John Mongella is calling on pregnant school girls to be arrested and taken to court.  Tanzania's leaders are promoting a culture of human rights violations in which young victims of sexual violence are being punished while perpetrators are going free."

She said the policy of banning pregnant schoolgirls, often victims of rape or sexual coercion, failed to address the issue of who impregnated them.

"It is unacceptable that convicted child molesters walk free by order of a president who simultaneously denies victims of assault access to education if they become pregnant.

"After seeing their attackers sentenced to life for rape, now these survivors and their families are dealing with the pain of witnessing the president freeing the men who violated them.  Where is the justice in that?" she said.

Petrider Paul, of Youth for Change, in Tanzania, said the pardons sent a "terrible" message to perpetrators of sexual violence and devalued their victims.

"It is unfair to the victims of these crimes and it sends a bad message to perpetrators that they can get away with it," said Paul.

The release of the men caused outrage on social media, with many posting the statements of the young girls who were violated, she said.

Children's rights groups say this is just the latest example of the president's lack of understanding of violence against children.

Kate McAlpine, the director of Community for Children's Rights in Tanzania, told the BBC she was "horrified but unsurprised" by Magufuli's decision or the call to arrest pregnant schoolgirls.

"This story is indicative of a failure at the top level of political will to end violence against children," she said.  "Pregnant schoolgirls are pregnant because they are victims of violence.  He has a blind spot when it comes to recognizing children as victims.  There seems to be a punitive attitude towards young children."

She said the fact the two men were jailed in the first place was unusual in a country where most rape cases are resolved within families.

A petition calling for schoolgirls who are pregnant in Tanzania to be allowed to complete their education has attracted 66,000 signatures.

Magufuli, who came to power in November 2015, is a popular figure, nicknamed the "the bulldozer" for his energetic road-building program as former works minister and for his solutions-based approach.  His war on corruption and wasteful spending has earned him admiration from many quarters.  However, he has come under fire recently for using repressive legislation to silence the media, civil society and opposition groups.

In October, the Mwanahalisi newspaper became the second to be banned in Tanzania in a year, after publishing articles criticizing the president.

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Meow" and Forever: A "Tail" of a Girl and Her Cat

Guys.  Guys.  Guys.  Guys. 

PLEASE take the time to check out the feel-good story that I've posted below written by Ashley Maisano for the blog on

And, PLEASE, have a peep at the video found on this link: 

I, for one, am filled with warm fuzzies (furries?) and have already watched it about as many times as I did the Derek Jeter retirement commercial for Gatorade.  (Note to self: watch that again, too).

Jordan and her black cats are absolutely precious, and this just goes to show what a "pawsitively" amazing effect our feline friends can have.  I mean, as a cat mama since childhood, I've always known it, but this should silence the "crazy cat lady" haters out there - at least temporarily.

A round of "appaws" to Mychal's Learning Place and Adopt & Shop for this remarkable partnership and, Jordan, keep "feline" the love, girl!

Sadly, I don't think Mwalimu Hyasinta is gonna go for this idea for our Toa kids, but perhaps we can replicate something similar with non-living sensory stims in Tanzania.  For instance, the Teddy Bear could probably be safely introduced....

Anyway, consider this "amewsing" photo of one of my own "purr-fect" pusses a bonus to this post.  :)


This Young Woman with Autism Was Almost Non-Verbal - Then Her Life Changed When She Met These Cats 

This young woman named Jordan was diagnosed with autism, and has gone through life without barely saying a word.

She started attending Mychal's Learning Place, which is a non-profit program that provides services for students with developmental disabilities.  They teach them how to cook, clean, do laundry, take the bus, and use the computer.

Although this program was very helpful for Jordan, there was something that was still missing in her life, as she was still extremely quiet.

Mychal's then partnered with Adopt & Shop in Culver City, CA, and this was the answer they've been waiting for.

Jordan has a love for black cats, so she began working with them and it has helped her open up and even talk!  Her eyes light up, she smiles and laughs, and says, "kitty kitty kitty."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Christmas Bonus

Happy new year, one and all.  I hope everyone's holiday (whichever you celebrate) was merry and full of friends, family, and fun.

Things thisaways are okay enough except that we on the East Coast of the United States are currently undergoing some weather phenomenon called a "bomb cyclone."  As if one or the other of those two scenarios wasn't bad enough, 2018 has been ushered in by this ferocious wintry combo, the likes of which only Trump's "bigger, better button" could heat up.  Sigh.  Some say fire, some say ice.  Only time will tell....
On to (slightly) happier news - as I find it's hard to be jolly when you're freezing your tuchus off - I found this article in the Tanzania Daily News in mid-December and thought I'd take the time to post it now.  It's about teachers' allowances in Tanzania, and the 60 million shillings that President Magufuli devoted to such, to which I say: Well done, sir, for compensating this fairly unappreciated, generally disdained, mostly female, and HUGELY under-compensated segment of the workforce.
If we do the math, this large sum of Tanzanian shillings divided by 2250 (the paltry rate of the shilling to the dollar) comes out to LESS THAN $30,000usd.  FOR TEACHERS ACROSS THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Now, I'm not mad at it, but it shows just how far there is to go in getting some pay equity for these women (as well as incentivizing them to actually show up, do their work, and give a hoot every day).  Thirty grand is a heck of a lot of money in TZ (or anywhere else, frankly), but it ain't much when you take into account how vast Tanzania is geographically (365 square miles) and the magnitude of its population (56 million).  Granted, fundraising of any kind done within a developing country is a step in the right direction, and I truly hope the government continues to invest in education, including teachers' remuneration and training/development.
Just my two cents as I sit here dreaming of balmy Moshi, cuddly Drogo, and the kachumbari at Ten to Ten....  T minus 18 days!

President John Magufuli yesterday handed over 60m/- to the Tanzania Teachers Union (TTU) that was obtained from a fundraising function he held during the opening of the union's general meeting held in the country's capital, Dodoma.  President Magufuli presided over the impromptu fundraising immediately after he opened the meeting on Thursday, calling on several top leaders to make a pledge that they were to fulfill before the end of the meeting.

The money was handed over to the TTU's acting president, Ms. Leah Ulaya by the president's secretary, Mr. Ngusa Samike, on behalf of President Magufuli.  Speaking after handing over the money to the TTU boss, Mr. Samike said the money was meant to cater for the allowances of the members who were invited at the meeting, and he was categorical that the money should be spent for that purpose.

During the fundraising event, President Magufuli and Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa contributed 10m/- each, with other top government officials, including other ministers, contributing another amount totaling 40m/-.  "The president has sent me to hand over this money to you on the condition that the teachers receive 50m/- and trainee teachers 10m/-," said Mr. Simike.
On the same occasion, the Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, and Vocational Training, Dr. Leonard Akwilapo and Ms. Ulaya commended the president for supervising the collection of the money before the end of the meeting as per his promise.
The PS asked the teachers to work closely with the government because it is on the forefront of tackling their challenges, including paying their dues.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happier Days

Sorry for not posting any original content in recent days.  I have been overwhelmed by the amount of administrative work I've had to do while in the States as well as suffering against the cold, which I am not used to, and has somehow sunken into my bones and nestled there.  I'm currently writing under a thick duvet, loads of extra blankets, and my favorite oversized sweater, and I'm STILL not warm.  I guess ten years in equatorial Africa will do that to you!

Anyway, I just thought I'd put up this cute video of me and my mom from the year that former Toa board member, Barbara Finkelstein, came to visit Moshi.  We had descended upon Msaranga Primary School for one of our famous "Friday Fundays," and were making paper crowns, pirates for the boys and princesses for the girls (, not that Toa insists upon sticking to traditional gender roles.  Always down for hijinks with the kids, Carla went all out on her princess crown.

It's a nice memory from a time in my life that felt really hopeful and happy unlike my current mood which is pretty much just overwhelmed and anxious and COLD at all times.  Sigh.  I know this too shall pass, but I am not enjoying life as a depressed popsicle....  At least I'll be back in Moshi in a mere six weeks!

Be well, everyone!!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Race Space

Please have a look below at this fascinating article from the Hechinger Report, a news outlet that "covers inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism that uses research, data, and stories from classrooms and campuses to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters."

I have reprinted the bulk of the lengthy and informative article written by Sarah Butrymowicz and Isaac Carey, but you can find the whole thing here, with some interesting tangential links:  Apparently, this piece is part of a larger series in collaboration with the Huffington Post that I will have to delve into at a later date when I have more time, but which can be found here if your appetites are whetted:

My point in sharing this piece is to highlight the difficulty in providing quality education to special needs students of color in a developed context.  How then to educate special needs students in Africa?  The story of Colson Brown is heartwarming and I applaud his mother for her persistence in getting her kid the care he needed to succeed.  But the story of Kenyatta Burns and the Durham Public Schools is a much more common reality.  I'm guessing that's true here in the United States as well as on the African continent.


Special Education's Hidden Racial Gap: Across the country, black and Latino children with special needs are far less likely to graduate than their white peers.

WASHINGTON — At the age of 3, Tyrone Colson was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic abnormality that is often accompanied by developmental disabilities.  Because of this diagnosis, an individualized education plan (IEP) — documents detailing Colson's special needs, and a plan for how his school would help him reach his potential — was already in place when Colson arrived for his first day of school.

In theory, being diagnosed before he even started school should have given Colson a leg up.  The odds he faced, as a black boy in special education, were actually stacked against him.

"The services are out there, but a lot of times, parents of color just don't have the information and resources they need to fight for them," said Daisy Brown, Tyrone's mother.  Brown spent years pushing schools to follow the law, after giving up her job doing administrative support work for a government relations firm.

White students with special needs are far more likely to graduate with a traditional diploma than are their black and brown peers.  In ways big and small, the effects of race and racism magnify the negative consequences that often come with being placed into special education.  Not only are non-white students more likely to be assigned to lower resourced schools that struggle to provide them with the services they are entitled to, but navigating the special education system often presents unique challenges for parents of color, experts say.

A Hechinger Report analysis of federal data exposes the stark racial gap between different groups of special education students.  Nationally, 76% of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma.  That falls to 65% for Hispanic students and 62% for black students with special needs.  But those racial gaps are much wider in some states.

In Wisconsin, 84% of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma, while just 53% of black students and 71% Latino students with disabilities did so.  In Nevada, which has some of the very worst outcomes in the country for students with disabilities, just 17% of black students and 27% of Latino students exited with a regular diploma.  Nearly 40% of Nevada's white students with special needs received a diploma.

In essence, a special education placement exacerbates racial inequalities seen throughout the education system.  Experts say black and Latino parents often feel ignored and belittled at meetings with school officials, and their special needs children are more likely to attend schools in high-poverty districts that lack the resources to provide them with the services they need to catch up.

Paul Morgan, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that the economic disadvantage often faced by black and Latino special needs children has been exacerbated by the way Congress funds special education.  The federal government has failed to pay 40% of the "excess cost" of educating children with disabilities, a responsibility outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The burden of making up for those unfunded expenses falls on schools, and particularly hard on the poorer school districts that disproportionately serve black and brown students.

But the problem runs much deeper than differences between school districts.  In Washington, D.C., where there is just one school district, 77% of white students with special needs who exited during the 2014-15 school year left with a diploma, while just 57% of their black and Latino peers did.

In addition to being more likely to live in neighborhoods with better resourced schools, white and affluent parents are also often better positioned to take advantage of federal disability law to get what they need for their children, said Morgan.  "These services are often difficult to secure, they're expensive and schools don't necessarily want to provide them," he said.  "So it's parents who are better resourced, in terms of information and social networks and time, that are able to persist and go through the legal wrangling sometimes necessary to get what they need."

Morgan's research demonstrates that even when children in the same schools display the same needs, white English-speaking children are more likely to receive the services that they need to excel.

Even a well-informed parent like Daisy Brown, who spent hours on the internet researching special education services after she became her ailing mother's full-time caretaker, hit roadblocks when she tried to advocate for her son.  In middle school, administrators wanted to cut back the number of hours of speech therapy Tyrone received from one and a half hours a week to half an hour per week.  Brown was certain that her son would fall behind without those extra hours, so she used Tyrone's health insurance, a Medicaid program for children with disabilities, to get him help from outside services.  Brown picked him up every Thursday afternoon to go to a local hospital to get the additional therapy.  For the next five years, "Therapy Thursdays" became a family tradition.

The next hurdle came while Colson was still in middle school, when Brown realized that he had been placed on what is called the certificate track, which meant he would graduate with a certificate of completion, an alternate diploma that is not recognized by most colleges and employers.  That began a four-year-long fight to get him onto the diploma track.  "I just wasn't going to let them put him on the certificate track, where they just give them a piece of paper so they could work at a gas station," said Brown.

Colson, who is on the autism spectrum, initially had trouble using and comprehending complex words, but thanks to the additional therapy he received, Brown felt he had made great strides.  But school administrators ignored that progress, Brown said.

"He was smarter than anyone in the class.  The teacher counted on him to help her with the other students," Brown recalled.  "I would just keep going in and telling them, 'I think my son can be on the diploma track.'  But they put up brick walls."

Around the country, black and Latino students are far more likely to be put on the track toward these alternative diplomas.  During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year of available federal data, more than 37,000 students with special needs graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma.  And while black and Latino students made up just 45% of students who exited the special education system that year, they made up 57% of those who received a certificate.  White students, on the other hand, were much more likely to leave high school with a traditional diploma.

Brown eventually used Tyrone's insurance for a second evaluation, outside of the school.  "The school's evaluations will tell you that the school is giving the child exactly what they need," said Brown.  The outside evaluation convinced school administrators to retest Colson: This time, they found he was ready for the diploma track.

While district spokesperson Kristina Saccone declined to address the specifics of Colson's case, citing federal student privacy laws, she said that the district is aware of these achievement gaps and is committed in its new strategy plan to addressing them.  Among the plan's strategic priorities is strengthening instruction for special education students.

"It's really important to continue to look at the achievement gap; it's a challenge for us and it's something that we are working on," said Saccone.  "We just got a report from the American Institutes for Research, highlighting the progress the district has made, but also specifically focusing on the achievement gaps that remain particularly for students of color and special education students."

Colson became one of the students to narrow that gap.  He eventually graduated with a traditional diploma, and is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia.  Brown's voice fills with pride when she talks about how her son excelled once he was placed on the diploma track.  "His transcript looks so beautiful, it's scary.  It starts out with him on the certificate track in ninth grade, and then he moves over to the diploma track, and there isn't a single C or D on that diploma-track work," she said.

Brown is matter-of-fact when she talks about the sacrifice she had to make to ensure her son beat the odds, however.  To help him succeed, she had to quit her own career.  "I realize that if I didn't leave the workforce my son wouldn't be as far along as he is," said Brown.

Not all students are as lucky.  Kenyatta Burns' story highlights what happens to the many black students in special education who don't have a parent in their corner, let alone one who is willing and able to quit their job and devote themselves full time to advocating for their child.  As a child, the now 20-year-old North Carolina native was in and out of foster care and often struggled with behavior problems.  Eventually, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and bipolar disorder.  The diagnoses should have triggered extra supports at school, but Burns said that much-needed help never materialized.

While Burns struggled at a Durham, North Carolina, elementary school, she says she began to catch up academically after she transferred to a middle school in nearby Raleigh.  But her success was short-lived.  She ended up back at Durham Public Schools in eighth grade.  That year, the school didn't ask her to take any end-of-course exams.  Instead, she was put in a room to watch movies while other students took their tests.  She was passed up to ninth grade anyway.

"When I got to high school, I crashed.  I didn't know what was going on," she said.  "I was screaming for help with work....  I would just sit in the room and let the days go by."

At the end of ninth grade, Burns' mom gave her a choice: go to school full-time or work full-time.  She picked working at a McDonald's.  Since making that decision, Burns has changed course, and is now pursuing a high school equivalency degree, with tutoring help from the Durham Literacy Center.  When she started going to the center two years ago, she said, she didn't even know how to multiply whole numbers.  She added she's learned a lot — including how inadequately the public schools prepared her.

"Now I thank God, I didn't let them skip me up.  I would have had a high school diploma, [but] would have never known how to.... use my commas, put in periods, capitalize words," she said.

The tutors at the literacy center work with Burns one-on-one and are patient when she doesn't understand something.  "That's what I wish I would have had in high school," she said.

"An IEP doesn’t mean that you're slow, it just means you have a hard time learning things," she added, referring to an Individualized Education Program: a set of documents, services, and supports given to all students in special education.

So far, Burns has passed the language arts portion of the high school equivalency exam and is hoping to go into real estate when she finishes the other sections.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer at Durham Public Schools, confirmed in an email that Burns had been a student in the system.  Sudderth said that the majority of students receiving special education services are on track to receive a regular diploma and spend the bulk of their time in classrooms with their general education peers.  The unique needs of each student are determined by a team of educators, the parents, and sometimes the student.

Meanwhile, in Washington, after learning how to make the system work for her son, Daisy Brown started looking for ways to help other children.  Brown now sits on two committees, one put together by the District's Department of Disability Services and another run by the D.C. Medicare program from which Tyrone received outside services and evaluations.  Both committees aim to help Washington children navigate the special education system.  As part of that work Brown runs workshops for parents on how to advocate for their children.

"It's not just about helping that child, it's helping that family be able to help that child.  Parents must learn how to get the help that they need," said Brown.  "As a parent, you have to break down the bricks that they put in front of you.  It's not an easy thing to do."

Parents who are aware of their rights can help close the gaps for their kids, Brown said.  "The first time, a parent sits down at an IEP meeting and can talk about what these scores mean and what concerns them, their [officials'] mouths drop," she said.  "They see this is not a parent who I can pull the wool over their eyes.  I've seen so many doors opened for parents."

Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, said the problem is much deeper than an information gap.  Racism and a lack of cultural competency often pervade meetings between school officials and parents and make it difficult for black and brown families to get what they need for their children, she said.

"Often people blame families for not being more involved, but schools are more likely to listen to white and upper-class parents," said Fine.  "Privileged parents are listened to.  When poor parents and parents of color fight for their children, they are seen as aggressive....  They are treated as if they don't know what they are talking about."